Let’s thank the MAC (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal) and CBC/Radio-Canada for bringing forward a gorgeous, albeit short-lived exhibit featuring the work of American conceptual artist, Jenny Holzer as part of the Leonard Cohen Une brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything exhibition. Entitled Silo No. 5, the commissioned work consists of three columns of text featuring selections from Leonard Cohen’s music, books, and poetry in both French and English that are projected onto Silo No. 5, a now federal heritage building that once served as a grain elevator for the city. Take a walk down Rue McGill (yes, walk down it for the full impact) all the way to Rue de La Commune, and once reaching the Marché des Éclusiers (400 de la Commune), the sounds of Cohen’s music fill the air. The profound words of Cohen scroll up the 400 meter long expanse of the building, white clear letters against the night-silhouetted, irregular backdrop of the structure. The steady scroll of the text mirrors the water below. Cohen’s words are given a monumental treatment that in Holzer’s hands remains minimalist enough to capture the essence of his punk poetry. Each word and phrase are stripped of any adornment, giving them visceral power. It is a visually and sensually exciting piece. Heaters are in place to help defeat the night air for those who dare meander up the stairs to appreciate the projection from a raised walkway. When it gets too cold, step inside the bar for a drink (yes, they have Cohen’s Red Needle, but also Hot Toddys, Irish Coffee, and wine) or a snack and watch the words flow by.
Holzer is one of the most significant artists of the 20th century (and now 21st). She is best known for her work Truisms, which began in 1977 when she pasted messages, “truisms”, around New York city. The phrases are provocative: “Decency is a relative thing” and “Ignoring enemies is the best way to fight.” She presents them in bold capitalized unadorned fonts mirroring ones used in advertising (think Absolut vodka ads), giving the sense that they are directives to live by, even though as a collection the statements are sometimes contradictory. Their presentation, as a form of advertising, also speaks to the consumerist culture of the time that was growing among the Wall Street elite. Each statement has the potential to produce a response — agreement, disagreement — and if the stars align, a conversation. It is a clever piece on many levels. It gets a thoughtful viewer not just to think about the validity of the statement, but also how advice and dictums are shared, what gives both the speaker and the message authority, and ultimately, how our messages define who we are.
Holzer’s importance is in part due to the time from which she comes, a period in the art world when the street art scene was bubbling in New York. Think about Keith Haring’s cartoonish, radioactive people and dogs. Conceptual art, where the idea was as important as, if not more important, as the aesthetics of the piece is also brewing. And Holzer, for her part, is a woman artist working at a time when there is an outcry among women artists that they have been shut out of the academy, best embodied in the activist work of the Guerilla Girls (1985) whose posters blazed that women represented 10% or fewer of the artists in a number of key museums and galleries.
Holzer’s lifetime of work includes essays, t-shirts, projections, books, and even dance. Her best known things are her public projections. We in Montreal are lucky to have this opportunity to see her brand piece honoring Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen Une Brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything is at the MAC (185 St Catherine Ouest) from November 9, 2017 to April 9, 2018. Details HERE. The Leonard Cohen exhibition at Silo No. 5 until November 11. The projection runs from 7 p.m. – 11 p.m. nightly. It is located where RueMcGill meets De La Commune. Details HERE.